Running in the Family

My great grandfather, Alfred Harris was a story teller. He was very good at it, and while never sinking as low as fabrication (unlike his great granddaughter) , he could take a small nugget of fact and spin it like a politician with an election to win. These stories have become Harris family legends, believed implicitly by several generations and handed down as “hand on heart, it’s true as I live and breathe” truths, never to be questioned.

I’m a story teller. I make no pretensions to literature, I know what I am, a spinner and a weaver of whimsy, one step away from the old men and women who sat by the fire in the cave and told tales to keep the night away and stop the kids making a nuisance of themselves. Over the years I’ve sat in warm kitchens and back parlours and listened as the old people drank tea, smoked endless cigarettes and remembered. I’ve heard all Alfred’s stories told by his children and his grandchildren and I’ve given up on the “pinch of salt” where they are concerned and substituted a fist full instead.

Having said that, I have to give Alfred his due, he may have being stretching the truth until it pinged, but sometimes, there was a grain of truth in what he said, a much abused grain, but it was there. Like how the family once lived in Jerusalem…he was right, we did once live in an area of a small Surrey town which was colloquially and ironically know as “Jerusalem” on account of its undesirable reputation. This part of the tale was, of course, omitted and the impression of sand, heat and holiness allowed to grow and grow. I swear there were times when I could smell the gefilte fish and hear the muezzin call from The Dome of the Rock.

The one about us being descended from Spanish Gypsies makes me very suspicious, but one the other hand, genealogical research as proved a direct ancestor was born at sea in about 1800. There is no more information so far, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out  Spain is involved some where. I have strong doubts about the gypsies, if there is anything in it, it will probably involve a cargo of something very dull and a delayed voyage.

One of the other favourite family stories was how a Harris, back in the good old days, fought Tom Cribb, the famous bare knuckle boxer whose fight with Molineaux is a legend in pugilistic circles and familiar to any reader of Georgette Heyer.  My grandfather, Alfred’s youngest son, was very fond of this one and would tell it the second boxing was mentioned.

Pinch of salt? Please…pass the cruet.

However, on my genealogical travels down the branches of the family tree, I discovered that Alfred’s mother-in-law (deceased long, long before he met her daughter) was the child of a stonemason and came from a little town in Herefordshire called Fownhope.

One day in 2009 The Military Historian and I happened to be on our way to somewhere in Wales the long way round and we chanced to see a sign pointing to Fownhope and on the spur of the moment we decided to go and have a look.

It is a charming village and has two pubs, The New Inn and The Green Man. We decided to have lunch in The Green Man and on the wall is a large notice telling all about a former resident of the town and the pub …wait for this…was a former famous bare knuckle fighter called, not Tom Cribb, but Tom Winter. Not only that, but later research showed my ancestor lived in the old mews behind the pub and had several brothers. What are the chances of a couple of small boys not taking the opportunity to beg for a chance to spar with the great man?

Look Tom Winter up, my long ago ancestors didn’t get to take a swing at Tom Cribb, but he did.

The story of fighting with a famous boxer had obviously been told to Alfred’s wife by her mother and she in turn told it to her husband and great-grandfather couldn’t resist adopting and embellishing the story and making it a Harris legend.

Is there a moral to all this? Well yes, a couple – the first being don’t take family stories as gospel. I hear a lot of them at genealogical fairs, all too often preceded by the words “you’ll be interested in this”, which, believe me is very rarely the case and I can’t help wondering just how much truth there is in them. Are they “Jerusalem” stories or is there some truth underneath?

The other thing, and this is the one I like best, is never let a good tale go untold.  After all, there’s Granny’s Crown Derby Tea Service to be explained, and the day Aunt Grace’s husband came looking for her with the gun, and who exactly was George Clement Smith?

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Banana, Banana!

Sometime back in the 1960’s my grandparents went on holiday to the Canary Islands. Back then this was a real adventure, especially for two people born before World War One and for whom flying was still something amazing.

One of the things they brought home was a bottle of banana liqueur. It was one of those things tourist did bring back, it was in a very exciting shaped bottle and the most improbable golden yellow in colour.

My gran never drank and my grandfather was very abstemious, so this bottle was never opened. I suspect they never really had any intention of opening it, it sat in their cocktail cabinet a glowing golden addition to the a status symbol my grandfather was very proud of , it cemented his image as the successful, self made business man he was.

In time the cocktail cabinet and the bottle passed to my mother. She also is/was no drinker and her really hated that cocktail cabinet. Resourceful woman that she is, she found homes for both, the cabinet to a cousin who admired it and the bottle to the Military Historian and me.

Neither of us is adverse to the odd glass of something, but there was something about this jaundice liquid in its bulbous bottle which did not tempt. So we did what any sensible person would do, we put it in the back of a dark cupboard and ignored it. When we moved we thought about chucking it out, but what with one thing and another, it came with us to the new house and went into a new dark cupboard.

Then we moved again and so did the bottle, to yet another cupboard. Then I had a new kitchen and it spent a while in the cellar. Then we needed to clear the cellar, so it found itself in one of the new kitchen cabinets…luxury, it was only semi-dark in there.

Then comes last night. I’ve made pots and pots of apple butter from the bags and bags of windfalls which keep appearing. It is delicious and it needs a home, so we decide to make some space in the kitchen. There in all its yellowness is the now sixty year old bottle of banana liqueur. The time has come, its day is done, the bottle is quirky, so we might keep it, but the contents is going down the sink. Let’s face it, by now it will be yucky beyond belief.

I’m about to pour when the Military Historian says “dare you to try it”. Well, I’ve not been married to the British Army for more years than I care to remember for nothing! A challenge is a challenge and not something to be turned down. So I pour some into a spoon and try it.

Then I had another spoonful to make sure my taste buds hadn’t been deceived. It is DELICIOUS! Sweet, mellow and tasting of banana, but not in a bad artificial way, but the way a perfectly ripe organic banana does. It is obviously not something for dwarfish quaffing, but it is very drinkable. I have no idea if it always tasted like this or whether time has been the agent, maybe by the end of the bottle I will have worked it out.

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LGBT & Me

Today is my beloved J’s birthday. I won’t embarrass him (or me) by telling you how old he is. We are cousins, I can never remember if it is second cousins or first cousins once removed, but it doesn’t matter, he is so close to me in age and we lived so close too each other when we were children, he is more like a brother than anything else.

And I love him as if he were my brother.

He was always different from the other boys I grew up around. At the time I thought nothing of this, or if I did it was with relief, because he didn’t want to bully me into being the baddie in all games of imagination or doing the job no-one else wanted in all sport…I played street cricket and street football as a child, but never got out of goal or was allowed to be anything but wicket keeper, the two positions none of the boys wanted because it meant being a target or having to do all the running around collecting the ball.

He and I did lovely things together, we read books, did jigsaw puzzles and talked about history. We raised a family of guinea pigs,went fossil hunting at the family sand extraction pit and hid from our mutual great-grandmother who smelt terrible and had an evil Pekinese addicted to ankle biting. We had numerous collections of numerous things, each one a passing fancy which didn’t last, but which were deeply satisfying at the time.

When I was about nine and he was not much older, we were allowed to go roaming, it was a safer more innocent time. We had what were called “Red Rover” tickets which allowed you to ride on any red London bus anywhere you wanted to go for a whole day. Over the course of many school holidays we went up to London, two children wandering though a great city together. We went to Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Monument and Trafalgar Square. We looked at the Houses of Parliament and went around The National Gallery and every museum we could find. We went to The Tower of London to see the Crown Jewels and down Whitehall to see 10, Downing Street. I remember going to see Cleopatra’s Needle because it sounded so exciting and being very disappointed, because it wasn’t.

These are such happy memories, shining moments which have stayed with me through the years, lighting up the dark times.

But, things happen, families drift apart and when I was in my early teens and beginning to feel more and more vulnerable and in need of a friend, J’s family moved away and he was gone from my everyday life and I missed him so much and I was for a long time, very lonely.

I saw him occasionally after I left school and went out to work, but it was just fleeting lunch dates. He had become what I probably always knew he would become – clever, so much cleverer than me, intellectually brilliant and a complete and unashamed snob…in other words a totally adorable, impossible delight, although that might just be my opinion.

I got married and so did he. I had some of kids and so did he. We exchanged Christmas cards and the odd phone call, but he seemed distant, not my J, not quite the boy I loved so much. Every now and then I’d get a glimpse, but something had changed.

I hadn’t heard from him in ages, maybe a few years and I suddenly had a feeling all was not right, so I rang. I got his wife who told me she and J had split up and he had left. It took me a while to track him down, but my detective skills are pretty neat and I have no problems about lying to unsuspecting persons in offices etc.

When we finally spoke he told me he had left because he was gay, had always been gay and had always known he was gay and spent half a lifetime trying to conceal it. I’m not sure what reaction he thought he would get, knowing him I suspect he didn’t give a damn, but for me it was a wonderful moment, because everything I knew and loved about him now made sense. In that moment, J was again the “brother” I adored, he was back and one of the brightest stars in my memories was once again burning bright in my life.

And then a truly wonderful thing happened, J met D and married him. D was pure undiluted joy, a small round teddy bear of a man with eyes that twinkled and the warmest and happiest smile it is possible for a human being to have, to know him was to love him.

I think, in fact I know, many cruel and unkind things have happened to J over the years, but D’s early death was probably the cruellest and the hardest, but so much of that earlier unhappiness could have been avoided if he had been born at a time when being gay was accepted as being just as normal as being born straight.

Its fifty years since it stopped being a crime in England and Wales for men to be gay, a mere fifty years since one chunk of injustice and cruelty was stamped into the mud of history where it belonged. Think how much joy and happiness and loving relationships there might have been if it had never seen the light of day in the first place.

Happy Birthday J. XXXXXXXXX

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Going Home

I haven’t posted a short story in a while, so I thought you might like this one.  My large extended family lives on each side of the Atlantic and even after all the years, there is still a fine thread which goes back and forth across the ocean joining us together.

My Aunt Jean was one of my grandfather’s many sisters, she followed a brother and a sister to Canada in the 1920s. She always said you have to go back before you really know where you belong. Her life in Canada was the subject of many, many family stories, some of which might possibly have been true.

The picture is because “moose in the lake” was one of my favourite of all those stories, along with black bears in the trash bins and mistaking a skunk and babies for the family black and white cat and her kittens.

 Going Home

The wind ripped the handkerchief she had been waving from her fingers and carried off high above the liner’s bows.

Despite the cold she could not bring herself to go below, she stood by the rail and watched the shore slipped further and further away as the evening tide carrying them out. She knew when she came on deck tomorrow green waters would have turned to blue and the land would be a memory.

She had always promised herself she would go home, go back to her mother and all her brothers and sisters. Every part of her had ached for the familiar faces and familiar places of home.

Eventually she could bear the aching need no longer and she had packed her case and fled back to the land of her birth.

Once there, softly and quietly the familiar had wrapped itself about her. Remembered sights and smells and sounds had woven in and out of her senses, drawing her back to the places she had left when she had begun her great adventure.

She had come home and home had welcomed her with open arms, but now she was leaving them again, crossing back over the great ocean.

As the light finally faded and she could no longer see the dark shadow of the land, her thoughts turned to the wooden cabin by the lake.

The fruit harvest would over and soon the trees would blaze with the colours of autumn, heralding the promise of the long white winter to come.

He would be there, waiting.

When she left, she believed she was going back to where she belonged, but now the ship was carrying her back to him and to the land she knew she would now forever more call home.

 © Bev Allen 2015

 

Obscenity

alpine-1325195_960_7201Did you wonder what I’ve done now when you saw the above title?

Surprisingly I managed to reload the “Solemn Curfew” collection without a hitch despite being a bit distracted at the moment. My dearly loved god mother passed away recently and left me her books, all 4000 of them. I defy anyone to behave in a normal and rational fashion when faced with that many books. And these aren’t paper backs, they are a life time of careful and considered collecting. They arrive next Thursdays – there maybe demands for walls to be demolished to make room.

However, back to the obscenity of the title. This is another story about my grandmother. Whatever else could be said of her, and there is much which could be said, she was never boring.

Obscenity

To Mother it was an idea of genius, but my ten year old self was filled with consternation. And, glancing up at my father and seeing the expression of horror on his face and the droop of the cigarette permanently glued to his lip, I guessed I was not alone.

“She’ll enjoy it,” Mother stated firmly, “And yes, you do both have to come! It’s going to be our birthday present to her.”

Gifts for my grandmother were a source of anxiety for my mother. The wish to delight a mother-in-law who although difficult, tactless, obstinate and opinionated, was also generous and loving, taxed her imagination and worried her.

I had already worked out Gran’s needs were few and her tastes ran towards the sentimental and the tacky, but to my mother, convent educated with exquisite taste and beautiful manners, Gran was a mystery.

I watched her try and balance her own need for refinement against Gran’s delight in china poodles, crocheted toilet roll covers and pictures of children with huge sad eyes accompanied by a dog of equally melancholic attitude.

This year Mother was triumphant, she had come up with the perfect solution; we would take Gran to see a film. Not just any old film, but an all singing, all dancing block buster of sugary sentiment and sweet mawkishness which must appeal to the owner of all those doggy ornaments.

Father protested and I sulked, but Mother was not listening, the night was going to be the perfect treat for one unpredictable old lady and like it or not, we were going to be there to see her enjoyment and Mother’s victory.

Young as I was, I could smell the whiff of danger even as we left the house.

My worst fears were confirmed when we got to Gran’s house and she was sitting primly in her chair wearing her duty outfit, the one reserved for attending such functions as funerals and visits to her solicitor. Her best black coat was buttoned to the neck, her hands were gloved and she was wearing her “going out” lipstick, a shade of red just past pillar box.

Seated beside me in the back of Father’s car, her “good” hand bag firmly clamped to her knees she fixed the back of Mother’s head with a basilisk stare.

“I have not been to a picture house since 1939,” she announced in arctic tones.

“Good God,” Mother ejaculated, startled into giving Gran an opening, “Why not?”

“I had no desire to see war news,” she replied, “Nor the sort of silly film they thought proper for us ignorant people.”

I watched mother stiffen. Gran was uneducated, forced to leave school at the age eleven to work in the Nottingham lace mills, but she was not ignorant, far from it, but claiming to be so was one of her greatest weapons in the game of being difficult.

“That was a long time ago,” Mother said, brightly, “You’ll find it’s all very different now and I’m sure you’ll like this film. It’s in colour you know.”

All this revelation got was a sniff.

“You must have heard of it,” Mother continued, by now assailed with doubts.

“I have,” Gran admitted, “Lilly was speaking about it. She’s seen it five times.”

I chanced a sideways look at her face and caught a hint of anticipation on her face. She was intrigued; her best friend and closest rival Mrs Rhodes had seen the film and while I would have bet my sixpence pocket money Gran hadn’t allowed her to gossip about it as much as she would have liked, sufficient information had been imparted to convince Gran she might be missing something.

Perhaps this hadn’t been such a very bad idea after all.

I knew I was going to hate the film when the opening shot ranged over some field and a lady began to sing. There were a load of nuns as well and I found myself feeling very sorry for Mother if she’d had to listen to singing like that all day in the convent.

By the time a lot of very silly children began to add to the noise I had finished my chocolates and was aware of just how uncomfortable my seat was. I did a great deal of wriggling and sighing and kicking the back of the seat in front to see how long it would be before its owner turned around.

Gran was between me and Mother, so I got away with all this. Finally the boredom and the darkness made my eyes grow heavy and I slipped into sleep.

I woke up when Gran shook me.

“Stand up,” she snapped.

I stumbled to my feet and realised the national anthem was playing and everyone was beginning to leave the cinema. The cool night air woke me up and I began to take notice of the adults.

“What did you think?” Mother asked father with a bright smile.

He just looked at her like a man who had been in pain for the last hour or so.

“Well I thought it was good,” she said with false gaiety, “The scenery was lovely. Did you enjoy it, Millie?”

“I did not,” Gran replied firmly, “It was the most disgusting exhibition I ever saw.”

Even Father seemed stunned by this pronouncement and I bitterly regretted going to sleep. What had I missed?

“Allowing a young girl like that to marry a man old enough to be her father,” Gran continued, “Disgraceful behaviour. Utter filth! I’m surprised they were allowed to make a film about it.”

Mother’s jaw dropped.

“And I’m ashamed of you, Alice, allowing your child to see it! It was obscene. I am only glad the lamb slept through the worst of it.”

With this she swept me passed the posters of Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, covering my eyes to protect my innocence.

Bev Allen © 2015-2017

 

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